Whew, what a year.
When I elected to step back from Iditarod in 2022 (likely one of the best choices I made for myself and ATAO, with all the shenanigans that would be ensuing, unbeknownst to any of us), the imagined outcome was more time, more focus, and a re-packing of the proverbial sled. The season, instead, flew by in a flurry of crises, from small and annoying, to heartbreaking. I’m so grateful I was not trying to race as we juggled human health issues, weather events that then created nature events, and worst of all, the thing you never can prepare for, saying goodbye to a four legged friend.
We said goodbye to Mo this spring. I am still kind of shocked by how much this rocked my own world. That big goof was not just a huge dog, he was a huge character. I miss his enormous and completely earnest smile. It feels constantly strange to not be negotiating space around him. Had I been in Iditarod, his diagnosis of bone cancer, and the subsequent all-too-sudden goodbye would have been right in the midst of the race, essentially. I’m very glad I was able to be actually present to say goodbye, and to be as much of a support as I could be for Shawn, Mo’s obvious True Love.
Less than a week after we said goodbye to Mo, a moose broke into our yard.
As you likely know, if you follow mushing already, this year had record-high snowfall around the state of Alaska, and it created a perfect storm for moose vs dog team situations. It’s difficult for moose to navigate deep snow; it burns a lot more calories when they’re trying to eat their way through branches and saplings, and even worse for them, they can’t escape wolf packs. As the winter wears on, they are tired, hungry, and stressed. The ones who have made it thus far have likely done so very much but the skin of their teeth, either battling it out or escaping from predators. They don’t want to “give up” firm packed mushing trails, which means if a dog team encounters them on a run, the moose is kind of on its last straw. Similarly, later in the season, our yard, which is fully fenced in, started to present a smorgashbord of un-touched calories.
Much earlier in the year, we had to remove the main gate of our yard that goes over the driveway. This means that despite the yard being fenced in, there was an entry point. A female moose started hanging around, and now and then she’d use that entry point to wander into the yard. I chased her away with several methods for weeks. I pestered her with BB’s and rubber rounds after noise and vehicles and other options stopped working. She charged me several times– too many times to remember, honestly. I mostly was able to keep her away. I convinced her that coming up the driveway and into the yard was not a successful plan, and for a few weeks she hung around the back of the kennel, behind the fence.
We’ve gone rounds with moose before. What I learned with that experience is that once a moose starts getting used to “hazing,” they’re already past the point of caring what you do. They don’t like being pestered, certainly, but the benefit of whatever the yard is giving them– a combo of food and safety, I imagine– is worth the minor cost of me and my silly human devices.
I didn’t want to shoot the moose. I knew at some point I may have had to. I called the wildlife troopers and reported her persistence, knowing what they would recommend: you’re going to have to shoot her, probably. They offered me their help hazing her, but nothing they offered was different from what I was already doing. I kept at the hazing, but I reluctantly borrowed a more high caliber firearm from a neighbor. I did not want to kill her at all, but I also knew it was foolish to not be prepared.
For weeks, I evaded being charged, pestered the moose, and mostly endured her presence. The snow this year was feet deep. Many feet deep. If I killed the moose anywhere but on the driveway or on a trail, getting her to where the designated state charity could collect her would be hell. We don’t have an operable snow machine (snow mobile, you might call it), and the four wheeler or trucks wouldn’t function through 5 feet + of snow. I would have to resort to pulley systems and roll bars, as I had earlier in the year to move two tree trunks. There were a couple instances I could have (should have?) killed her, but where she was was bad, both in terms of where she landed, but also in terms of the backdrop of where I’d be shooting. We have neighboring houses on two sides, and the dog yard to the back. She had to be in a very specific location in order for a kill to be worthwhile. At the same time, she was feeling more and more comfortable getting close to the dogs themselves.
One morning, just a few days after Mo had died, I woke up to the dogs barking in alarm. It was the same moose-alarm bark I’d been waking to for weeks. I hadn’t slept for more than a few hours at a time in the last ten days or so because the moose had been getting more bold. Just a few nights ago, she’d wandered into the driveway again, and charged me again. I stood in crocs and my underwear near the edge of the driveway, yelling at her and trying to get her to leave, and when she opted to charge me, I shot her with a rubber round. We were eye to eye as she came at me. She’d been charging me so much my adrenaline didn’t even spike. She jumped when the round hit her; she was only about 15 feet away from me. She left, insulted, and I went back to bed on the couch, sleeping lightly so I could hear if she came back. One day not long after, I was napping and woke to the dogs’ alarm, and sat up on the couch to see her charging full tilt towards the yard by our living room window. It’s like seeing a dinosaur, kind of. Having a moose traipsing around your every day items– cars, windows, dogs– puts them in new, enormous perspective. Maybe that had been before Mo died; maybe that’s when I decided I needed to borrow the gun. All of the instances are mixed together in hindsight, to be honest. The moose became a facet of the world. I didn’t want to kill her, though. I didn’t want to end a life.
On this morning, a week after Mo died, it was 2 am. I had gone to sleep about 30 minutes before, and I was groggy and grumpy to be up. I looked outside and saw the same alarming sight as the day of the nap, but this was different. The moose was tearing in front of our windows, but from a different direction. She had broken through the fence at the far end of the yard, and she was charging just alongside the puppies’s houses, snorting at them, angry at their noise.
This was the most serious instance of any moose encounter we’d had, or that I’d ever had in my life. I don’t remember putting on clothes. I threw on my jacket and headlamp and off-brand crocs. I had shotgun rounds arranged in my jacket pocket; rubber rounds on the right and heavy, serious rounds on the left. I slung the shotgun over my shoulder and pulled the 30.06 rifle I’d borrowed off from where it sat over our window. I had a clip of three rounds for the rifle, which I’d put into a dog bootie and velcroed to the barrel (you can do anything with booties). I don’t remember loading the gun, or if I was worried enough to do that inside. However it happened, I did it, and then I was outside.
She was trying to decide what to do. She stood between me and the dog yard, shifting back and forth, unsure which way to turn. She hadn’t seen me yet, but she was agitated; angry. The dogs were frantic. They screamed at her in both alarm and ecstatic, primal hunger.
She decided, took a step towards the dogs. I jumped off the front steps of our narrow porch, into the snow, and down towards the truck which was parked between me and her. I yelled, swearing at her, and banged on the bed of the truck, trying to get her to come towards me. She turned. She was surprised. “What’s this?” I spoke at her more and stood away from the truck, giving her a target. Maybe I was coaxing, maybe I was loud. I don’t remember. She started coming towards me. I knew I had to shoot her. This was too far, now. But our angles were terrible; the dogs were right behind her. I needed to get her out of the yard. She stepped towards me, thinking about charging. Come on, come on.
Then, with inexplicable decision, she about faced and ran straight into yard, among the dog houses, and attacked.
She went into Astro’s circle. Astro and Ophelia live right next to each other, and for some reason my brain saw Astro as Ophelia. Maybe because Ophelia has been my pup for the longest; maybe its representative of the love I have for every dog in the yard, to see this single dog as so obviously my dog, my first pup. My girl. Astro-as-Ophelia tried to fight, for a second, and then ran. The moose had her cornered, where she couldn’t get to her house but couldn’t escape, and for the first time in my life, I saw in real life a moose stomping at something, violently, trying to kill.
I saw all of this as I screamed. The moment she moved, I screamed and I moved too. I ran after her. Moose are faster than humans– Certainly faster than me. But I ran anyway.
The distance of all of this is very small. I stood, originally, by the truck, maybe 40 feet from Astro’s circle. She was about 20 feet from Astro’s circle when she noticed me. She covered her distance with swift violence. I don’t remember covering mine. I surely must have thought, I can’t shoot her where she is, it’s too close to the dogs, too close to Ophelia. I needed to get her out of the dog yard, out of there. I was swearing at her, yelling, calling her to me.
I measured this out later. I got about 10 feet away from Astro’s circle, screaming at the moose, coming for her, when the moose stopped her attack and turned. Her eyes leveled on me, a threat she could no longer ignore, and she came for me.
Some part of my brain had evaluated the landscaped and planned out the steps here. I was basing all of my movements– minus running right at her– on positions I could take behind large objects I could hide behind or under if I needed to. Once she came for me, my feet knew exactly where to go. I backed up, rifle at my shoulder, her eyes and mine locked, hard.
I had never fired this gun before. Never even fired this caliber of gun. I didn’t know the aim or feel of it. In my memory, I don’t even recall the site existing, so I’m not sure if I aimed with it or around it. What I know is that I shot.
When I fired the first shot she was about 8 feet away from me. I fired at her head. I hit her; she halted, surprised, but then she charged on again, as you know to expect with large animals in this kind of a situation. I fired again, backing up to get alongside the four wheeler, which I knew was behind and to the left of me. ADHD brain to the rescue, in its finest form: that part of me had mapped this all out with enough precision that my footing was perfect. I fired a gun I’d never fired before while backing up while being charged by a prehistoric sized animal.
I fired the second shot as I was alongside the fourwheeler, and I fired the third shot– the last round I had– having gotten just behind it.
Poor Freddy had the traumatizing experience of the moose falling down next to her house. The moose started swerving and dancing, almost. Ridiculously. Sadly. Like she was beyond drunk. She tipped to her left, her head landing at the edge of Freddy’s circle. Blood was coming out of her nose. It left a spot of red on the snow where she landed. Breathing blood; a lung shot. A good shot. A death shot. But she stumbled back up and took two more swaying steps, and then she fell to her right, blood pouring out of her nostrils now, pooling under her head. I don’t know when her breath stopped, because the air was cold enough that the fresh blood steamed into the air for a while.
After the third shot I’d dropped the rifle and slung the shotgun off of my shoulder, loading a round into the chamber, ready to put her out of her misery if she was still alive. I waited a beat, to make sure she wasn’t going to get up again, and then before anything else I ran to Astro’s house. Was she okay? Was she alive? Oh- I said- you’re not Ophelia. But my heart crumbled in relief to see that she was moving, she wasn’t hurt, wasn’t hit. Somehow had dodged the stomping.
Were the other dogs okay?
I walked through the yard, my peripheral vision on the moose, making sure if she got up again I’d see. Freddy was alarm barking at the warm body. Freddy would alarm bark at the body for the next few hours, and fair enough. If I was Freddy, I would too.
I was shaking. I looked around, expecting that surely Shawn, or our friend Kalyn who was staying in the handler apartment, would have heard the cacophony of screaming and barking and gunshots, and would be out to see if we were okay. They both never heard a thing and never woke up.
I had work ahead of me. In the state of Alaska, if you kill a moose or animal in self-defense, you have to report it and then dress it. In summer, you have to fully dress it, but in winter, you just have to gut it. When possible, the state “road kill” program picks up the carcass and it’s distributed to the next folks on “the list.” It’s a way to make use of the animal, to respect, in some way, the death.
I had never killed anything larger than a vole, before her. And killing the vole, this past fall, had been the biggest thing I’d ever killed. I didn’t know what to think. I wouldn’t have chosen another way in this circumstance. There was no regret for protecting my dogs– But I was sad for this moose, for the need that had brought her across the fence, for the weirdness of the fact that this is much more her home than mine. I apologized to her, the way you apologize to someone when you would still do the thing again.
I checked the dogs again, realizing I’d necessarily shot towards them. What if a dog was hit and had curled up in their house and hadn’t shown being hurt? What if she’d stomped through them before I’d woken up? I made all the dogs get up, move around. Everyone was okay. I realized that even if a bullet had gone through her or hadn’t hit her, I had been shooting upwards. Moose are much taller than me.
I was tired. I hadn’t slept in so long. I had hoped tonight would be a night of rest for the first time in a while. But having only dressed a moose (or any animal) once before, the last time we’d had a situation like this, and with help then, I knew I’d be up for a while. I went inside and called the troopers. Reported the situation. They sounded overwhelmed with moose things. Normally they do a lot of investigation with this kind of thing, but this time they asked me a few cursory questions and told me to fill out a form. They didn’t say they’d come out to investigate. There were just too many moose encounters this year. They connected with the road kill charity and told me to expect someone to pick up the moose in the next few hours.
I found a tutorial on gutting. I had helped last time, and was pretty sure I knew the steps, but wanted to double check.
I worked through the night, Freddy barking at me and the moose, the other dogs watching stoically. I went slow, careful not to taint the meat. Even with all the blood, I didn’t know where I’d hit her, exactly. I marveled at the thickness of her winter coat. Her hair rivaled the dogs’ hair; hers was even coarser, and you could tell it was hollow.
I got half an hour of sleep before the charity came to pick up the moose, and before Shawn woke up and saw the text I’d sent (“Had to kill the moose, I’m outside gutting her”) and asked if I was okay.
The blood pool was concentrated, frozen into a tight puddle under the snow pack, where it had melted through, but in the last few weeks as the spring thaw has arrived, the mass of blood made itself clear. It was a lot more blood than I thought.
I didn’t want to kill her, but when it came to her or my dogs, I felt no compunction whatsoever. I felt no urge for self-preservation. My desire to draw her off the dogs was pure. It was the only thing I cared about.
Sometimes I doubt my own love or care for the dogs. I feel detached from it. I wonder if I’m capable of love, or of letting myself love these dogs, who live such short lives and who always, inevitably, leave.
The moments like these– like the moment I jumped into traffic to save puppy Ophelia when her leash broke– are definitive and reassuring, and usually kind of a surprise. Oh! I do love these dogs. More than anything. More than myself or my body or my safety, more than my reservation about taking a life. I love these dogs. I will do anything for my pack.
Spring is here. The blood pool finally washed enough away that it isn’t so glaring. More life changes and kennel updates in the works.
I stepped away from social media around Iditarod time. I realized how much I used it to just escape. My mind right now is set on one word: focus. Iditarod is in 311 days. Watching this year’s race from the outside sparked the fire that I had lost this past season. Or that had been drowned by circumstance and the overwhelming nature of recovering from a thousand mile race, financially, health-wise. Or, I should say, trying to recover. Always a work in progress.
I have been having more success at focus. I’ve been implementing some different tactics. This is good, and the work that is ahead of me.
For the dogs, the last part of the season was mostly oriented around tours with Sam, and now that mushing has ended, free play in silly, goofy groups.
This summer, the dogs will return to the “summer camp” of the glacier. They’ll be with a musher I know and trust, and it will give them the chance to run– which they’re hungry for after such a light season– and to be on snow for the season, which they love. And it will give me a chance to focus on the “problem” part of the ATAO team: me and the infrastructure. I’ll complete the kennel projects I couldn’t last year. I’ll continue working on my own health (effing doctors, ugh). I’ll get a chance to rest, a little. How has a season “off” been so very unrestful? The dogs are amped to run. Sarah and I will take the team down to Skagway in just a few days.
One dog won’t be heading to the ice. Mr. Max has found what he’s been on the hunt for and in need of for a while, since we confirmed his blood sugar and heat issues prevent him from doing any kind of real mushing: he’s found a home and a couch. Max is living now with Daryl and Pam Darnell– the folks who hosted us during our first Iditarod, and with whom I mushed throughout most of high school. He’s already settling in. I know Daryl and Pam are a perfect home for him. He’ll get the attention and devotion he deserves, without the annoyance of pipsqueaks like Huckleberry (the number one reason he couldn’t be a house dog with us).
Apologies for being a bit AWOL. This space from “social” has been both good for me, and odd. Since social media has been my primary source of news in the last decade, I have no idea what is going on in the world. Shawn had to tell me about “the slap” and why making a Pirates of the Caribbean reference was “too soon.” I like hearing these stories second hand, in conversation. It’s nicer and less consuming.
We’ll see if I come back to social media, personally, any time soon. Right now, this is a good configuration of focus for me. I have a race to run and a team to try to live up to. We’ve only got a handful of weeks and months before it’s time.
Thanks for being with us along the way, even through radio silence now and then. Know that the work of the pack continues, internally, externally. Adventurously and, hopefully, not so much. I look forward to a short time of peace and preparation in the next few months- with less wildlife and less sadness, I hope. I know you’re here with us, even if I don’t get to indulge myself in the news feeds and updates about your lives. I hope you’ll stick around with us through the summer and, of course– Onward.